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Lebanese head to crucial ballot

LEBANESE yesterday streamed to their hometowns to vote in a crucial election that could unseat the government and install one dominated by Hezbollah.

"I voted for reform and change," said Laure Khoury, a 32-year-old school teacher, after voting in the district of Byblos north of Beirut for the Hezbollah alliance. "We tried the others for four years and we got nothing but promises and corruption. Enough is enough."

The vote is the latest chapter in four tumultuous years that began with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 in a car bombing. The factions swept into power in elections the same year on a sympathy vote.

Hezbollah's coalition includes the Shiite movement Amal and a major Christian faction led by former army chief Michel Aoun. Opposing it are the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim supporters of current majority leader Saad Hariri - Rafik Hariri's son - allied with several Christian and Druse factions.

Early yesterday, a steady stream of vehicles headed out of Beirut to the rest of the country because voters were required to cast their ballots in their hometowns. Some vehicles carried flags of political groups to show loyalty.

Troops in armored carriers and in trucks took up positions on major highways to ensure peaceful voting. Authorities have deployed some 50,000 soldiers and police.

President Michel Suleiman was among the early voters, casting his ballot in his hometown of Amchit on the coast north of Beirut. "Democracy is a blessing that distinguishes Lebanon in the Middle East, and we must preserve it," he told reporters.

There are some 3.2 million eligible voters out of a population of 4 million. Early unofficial returns were expected late yesterday and official results today.


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